This year's linebackers are divided into two categories -- Texas' Derrick Johnson over here, and everyone else over there.
It's not often you have a gap the width of the Verrazano Narrows at one position, but, then, it's not often we have someone with Johnson's considerable abilities either. He's a powerful tackler. He can rush the passer. He's explosive. He's quick. He's aggressive. He's instinctive. He can play inside. He can play outside.
Odell Thurman (left) has some baggage to match his terrific talent. (Getty Images)
"I can do it all," he said. "I can come off the edge, come through the middle or whatever."
Johnson is the best linebacker in this year's draft, and, frankly, it's not even close. He won the Nagurski Award, given annually to the country's top defensive player; he won the Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker; he was a unanimous All-Big 12 choice; and he's about to become one of the first defensive players chosen in the April 23-24 NFL Draft.
But for all that he accomplished at Texas, it was something he didn't do that drove him to the top of this year's draft board. He didn't leave school early.
Sure, the thought crossed his mind after the 2003 season, but Johnson decided to stick around the Austin campus for his senior season. Lucky for the Longhorns. As the team's weakside linebacker, he set an NCAA record with nine forced fumbles and completed a career that included nine interceptions and 24 games with double-digit tackles.
Johnson's decision to stay in school is nothing new. Georgia defensive end David Pollack did the same thing a year ago and should also be one of the top defenders taken April 23. But Johnson's decision seems part of a trend at Texas, where wide receiver Roy Williams, a first-round pick by Detroit a year ago, and running back Cedric Benson, a likely top 10 pick this year, put off the pros until after their senior seasons.
"I guess (it's) because of the family atmosphere that we have down in Texas," said Johnson. "It's like home, and nobody wants to leave. I didn't want to leave.
|NFL Draft: Schedule|
|April 8||Special Teams|
|April 11||Defensive line|
|April 13||Running backs|
|April 15||Updated Mock|
|April 18||Offensive line|
|April 22||Tight Ends|
|April 22||Updated Mock|
"It's just something at Texas, and I think we're better off. Everybody's situation is a little different, and mine worked out for the best. I became more of a leader on and off the field. I grew up a little bit more."
Johnson was sensational his senior year, forcing a fumble once in every 14 tackles to become the only defensive player among the 10 finalists for the Walter Camp player of the year award. He had a career-high 18 tackles against Oklahoma State; 16 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception against Oklahoma; 14 tackles and a forced fumble in a win over Arkansas; 14 tackles and another forced fumble against Baylor ...
You get the idea.
Part of the credit belongs to Johnson. The guy has extraordinary talent. But part of the credit goes to defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, who stepped in last season to slow Johnson down, make sure he didn't overrun plays and increased his productivity.
"He saw a lot of flaws as far as (my) moving too fast," said Johnson. "He just slowed me down to make my percentage of getting to the ball almost every time much better last year. I've gotten into position a lot of times, and I didn't get fooled on play-action. I was a lot more under control."
His opponents were not. Johnson's numbers speak for themselves.
"I guess it is kind of hard to block me sometimes," he said.
Thirty-one NFL teams are about to find out.
|Top Prospects: Linebackers|
|1. Derrick Johnson, Texas|
|The skinny: A premier player who is the class of the position. Nagurski award winner as country's top defensive player, he set an NCAA record with nine forced fumbles. Extremely quick. Can drop into coverage. Explosive.|
|2. Kevin Burnett, Tennessee|
|The skinny: Athletic, smart, big enough to play inside with speed to drop into coverage. Two-time Academic All-SEC who was co-captain of Vols. Can be inconsistent. Needs to play the run better.|
|3. Channing Crowder, Florida|
|The skinny: Some questions about knees that underwent surgeries while in high school. Has the speed to catch ballcarriers from behind. Good motor. Strong. Sometimes gets ridden out of plays.|
|4. Barrett Ruud, Nebraska|
|The skinny: Consistent and strong. Can play inside or outside. Smart and instinctive. Tough. Is quick to the ball but is not what scouts consider fast.|
|5. Odell Thurman, Georgia|
|The skinny: May be the most gifted of them all, but carries what coaches like to call "baggage" -- meaning he has personal troubles. Hard hitter. Explosive. Solid tackler.|
|Matt McCoy, San Diego State. Overshadowed by Kirk Morrison at SDSU, but was very productive. Plays with emotion and is a sure tackler. A bit undersized.|
|Robert McCune, Louisville. A great story of a former National Guardsman who returned from overseas duty to play college ball. Produced big numbers at Louisville but was disappointing at the February combine.|
|Roger Cooper, Montana State. A 6-2, 239-pound outside linebacker, Cooper is an explosive tackler who was a three-time all Big-Sky choice Could be a solid strongside linebacker in the pros but will be held down in the draft by the level of competition.|
|Darryl Blackstock, Virginia. Isn't particularly good with his hands. Strictly a one-dimensional player who excels at the pass rush. Good for a 3-4 defense but has a history of inconsistency.|
|Alfred Fincher, UConn. A good athlete who has size and a great burst. Middle linebacker with good instincts versus the run. Led team in tackles and was all-conference choice.|
|An ordinary year for linebackers, with one standout and a cast of good, not great, supporting actors. Johnson should be a high first-round draft pick, but there are no guarantees after he goes -- though you can be sure there will be one or two others to be chosen in the top 32.|